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Milestone observation made on Mount Graham

By Blake Smith
Arizona Daily Wildcat,
February 10, 2000
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Scientists are one step closer to understanding the dynamics of star formation, thanks to a recent breakthrough at the Mount Graham Observatory.

Researchers on the mountain used a Harvard-Smithsonian developed detector, in conjunction with the sub-millimeter telescope at the observatory, to make the first measurements of terahertz waveband emissions from interstellar molecules, according to Peter Strittmatter, director of the University of Arizona's Steward Observatory.

"Honestly, I didn't think it was possible," said Strittmatter.

Understanding waveband emissions from interstellar molecules allows scientists to examine the internal workings of the constellations.

The detector - known as a "hot-electron bolometer" - was developed by researchers at Harvard University and the Smithsonian Institute.

It was left on Mount Graham for researchers to use when conditions were good, said Tom Wilson, Sub-millimeter Telescope Observatory director.

Strittmatter said perfect conditions were needed to attempt this observation, and scientists got their wish on Jan. 7.

With the Jan. 7 observations, scientists can better understand the different layers and dynamics of cold molecular cloud masses - the birthplace of stars.

"(This observation) opened up new tools for what is going on in the clouds," Strittmatter said.

This was not possible before because the technology needed was not developed until three years ago, according to Strittmatter.

Before the measurements were made, researchers found results with observations using frequencies of 1,000 gigahertz or less. In this observation, Mount Graham scientists were able to break the 1,000 gigahertz barrier.

Mount Graham researchers examined the constellation Orion for their breakthrough observations.

About 1,500 light-years away, Orion is close to Earth in comparison to other constellations, Strittmatter said.

With the telescope, researchers were able to see what Orion looked like in about the year 500.

Scientists will continue with their observations, looking further into Orion and other constellations when atmospheric conditions permit.

"Ultimately, we would like to make a three-dimensional model of Orion," Strittmatter said.

Blake Smith can be reached at city@wildcat.arizona.edu.

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